Sweet Land of Tolerance

“Survey Shows U.S. Religious Tolerance” was the headline of a New York Times article about the Pew Forum’s survey of America’s religious landscape. It found that Americans have a “non-dogmatic approach to faith.” In fact, 70 percent of Americans who claim affiliation to a religious body-including Christians-agreed that “many religions can lead to eternal life.” Nearly the same percentage said that “there’s more than one true way to interpret the teachings of my religion.”

What’s true of faith is also true of morals. Seventy-eight percent say that there are “absolute standards of right and wrong.” But only 29 percent say that they “rely on their religion to delineate these standards.” Instead, more than half of the respondents said that they rely on “practical experience and common sense.” As the Book of Judges put it, “every man did what was right in his own eyes.”

Not surprisingly, the media repeatedly used the word tolerant to characterize America’s religious beliefs.

But to be regarded as “tolerant” today no longer means extending “full rights of free speech and free expression” to those of all faiths. Instead, it appears that “tolerance” now requires what journalist Terry Mattingly calls a “certain doctrine of salvation,” that regards all “religious paths” as leading “to the top of the same eternal mountain.”

So, it is not possible anymore to debate religious truth claims respectfully. Instead, the new “tolerance,” which has become our ultimate civic virtue, requires abandoning all truth claims lest we “offend” somebody.

This applies everywhere: over the water cooler at work or even in presidential politics. When asked recently in a private meeting with religious leaders whether Jesus was the only way to salvation, Barack Obama reportedly said, “Jesus is the only way for me. I’m not in a position to judge other people.” Was he merely trying not to offend non-Christians? Or could his answer reflect this growing relativism, even among Christians?

The problem is that all religions make mutually exclusive truth claims. Either Jesus is, as He Himself said, “the only way to the Father,” or He is not. What Christians, Muslims, Jews, and Hindus say about the person and work of Jesus Christ cannot be reconciled. They may all be false, but they cannot all be true.

It’s called the law of non-contradiction-it goes back to Aristotle: If proposition A is true-that is, if it conforms to reality-then proposition B, making a contrary claim, cannot be true as well.

We can trace our debased definition of “tolerance” back to French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau who rejected any distinction between “civil” and “theological intolerance.” Rousseau did not believe that people can “live at peace with those [they] regard as damned.” He saw Christian truth claims as being intolerant and a prelude to civil strife. Specifically, he wrote, anyone who dared to say “no salvation outside the church” should be driven out of society-precisely what is happening.

Have we been so taken in by our own culture that we have abandoned truth? The antidote to this is what I have written about in my new book, The Faith. Christians need to be grounded in our basic beliefs, or we will, indeed, be swept up in the tides of surging relativism.

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